Rachael Chong runs a website that serves as a sort of “dating” site for non-profits. Catchafire, is a service matching volunteers with charities, based on this observation:
“If you’re a banker or designer and your volunteer experience involves painting a house instead of applying your talents, you probably don’t feel your time was well spent,” says Chong, a former investment banker at UBS and a regular volunteer. Her site now matches nearly 2,500 not-for-profits and 10,000 “pro bono professionals.”
Having made the jump from a commercial business to the social enterprise space. Was that something you knew you wanted to do, or did it just sort of happen?
It was definitely something that I wanted to do. I went into investment banking after college with a purpose, to learn as much as I could and then get out of it to do something in the social good sector where I could apply business skills. I left investment banking faster than I imagined I would, which was accelerated by the fact that I had a hard time trying to find opportunities to give back in a meaningful way while I was a busy banker. My transition into the nonprofit sector was deliberate. I was very passionate about microfinance so to get into the space, I did what it took at the time, which was volunteer my skills full time for six months for a microfinance institution called FINCA International that is headquartered out of DC. My time at FINCA gave me the experience to later score a great job to help start up BRAC USA, the US affiliate of the bigger BRAC, the largest poverty alleviation organization in the world. At BRAC USA, we relied on skilled volunteers to help us build our business, which was a very effective strategy that helped us raises tens of millions of dollars in our first year. After witnessing firsthand how powerful skills-based volunteering could be for nonprofits, I was propelled to investigate why a scalable skills-based volunteer didn’t already exist, and it was after this careful research that I started Catchafire to fill this huge need.
For those who are interested in the viability of social enterprises as seed investment opportunity, how do you guys rate your prospects? Its clear that if you do well, you’ll have a meaningful social impact, but do you think this can grow to be a big successful business as well?
When I was an investment banker and was looking for a skills-based volunteer opportunity that I ultimately never found, I remember thinking, “This is crazy. Someone is going to build something that will allow me to easily volunteer my skills to a nonprofit that needs it.” Catchafire is an idea that is an inevitability. If my team can’t figure out how to successfully build a scalable skills-based volunteer solution, someone else will. In regards to whether we think Catchafire can grow to be a big, successful business — most definitely. Choosing to be a for-profit social mission company was a deliberate decision. Nonprofits, like any other business, need professionals services in areas such as marketing, PR, technology and design; but traditionally they haven’t been able to afford most of these services at market rates. In the few months that Catchafire Alpha has been live, we’ve seen nonprofits thrilled to find that they can now get professional services, such as a new database or new brand identity, through us at a price they can afford. Catchafire is unlocking the nonprofit sector’s appetite to be more efficient and effective by leveraging skilled volunteers. When you think about the fact that nonprofits spending accounts for over 5% in US GDP, well that’s a big market we have in front of us.